To Deload or Not to Deload?


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To Deload or Not to Deload… That is The Question.

What exactly is a “Deload?” The short answer is that a Deload is a short, planned, period of recovery that typically lasts one week.

The Classic Deload is that one week out of 4, you greatly reduce Frequency, Intensity, Time (Volume) and/or Type of training.

Does it work? The short answer is almost everything works in strength training.

The better question is: “Is Deload optimal?” Then the answer gets more complicated.

As you will recall from the IFPA Personal Fitness Trainer Certification Course, all Personal Training sessions need to be customized according to the Principle of Individuality. In this regard, you will select the need of a Deload according to your individual exercisers’ age, gender, experience, condition, needs, wants, goals, and most importantly: How Your Personal Training Client Feels!

Yes, I said it and I am positive that those who worship at the “Alter of Iron” will call me a heretic and proceed with haste to my office in an attempt to burn me at the stake…or in their case…Squat Rack!

I will continue my Heresy by attempting to dispel some of the Greatest Myths in the Iron World.

Myth One: “You have to tough it up SNOW-FLAKE, you have to power through the pain!!!” This is only true when you are at the last REP of a slow-controlled-strict form and technique of a 15RM set when the Burning in your muscles are about to set off your Gym’s Fire Detection System!

If you feel pain outside the muscle in the joint, ligament, tendon, or a tearing in your muscle YOU STOP…EVERYTIME!!! If you develop any musculoskeletal dysfunction that causes pain YOU STOP…EVERYTIME! Pain is the only way your body has to tell you that you have injured your body. If you stop when the pain is minor, you can have a quick recovery to full function. If you keep pushing the Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type, you will turn a minor injury into a major injury that can take months or more to heal.

This is a great time to incorporate Deload training, but unlike the Classic Deload training that urges 60%-70% of MAX, I insist you drop the load much lower to the point of no pain or at least to the point where the pain is a light “Recovery Pain”. Recovery Pain is the pain you feel when damaged tissue is working, but not to the point that intensity is so high the damaged tissue will be damaged further. It may seem counter-intuitive that pain can be used to repair damage, but in many cases, it may be essential.

Immobilizing damaged tissue can be the worst thing you can do. Imagine a minor muscle tear. You will need to do light strength training and flexibility training to provide the necessary stress so the muscle repairs itself to be as good…or better than before.

Be Warned – light exercise creates a stimulus to repair – Go too heavy and you will do far more damage. It will take a great deal of sensitivity to judge where pain in the muscle is working, but not increasing damage!

Myth Two: “It does not matter how tired, unmotivated, or that you just don’t feel like it today Buttercup, get to the gym and lift!”

This is an extension of the “No Pain, No Gain” syndrome. The Reality of Exercise Science is, when your body is telling you today is not a good day to exercise…Listen!

Bodybuilders, Power Lifters, Weight Lifters, Olympic Lifters and all Strength Training Athletes believe the entire Universe revolves around the skeletal-muscular system! News Alert: It Doesn’t! You can suddenly become very weak from an overloaded Central Nervous System (CNS). The CNS and every other physiological system in your body can be dramatically weakened due to stress hormones being pumped into your body by your endocrine system. The stress can be created by physical, mental, emotional, financial, or even spiritual stress and it simply does not matter what causes the stress. Stress is stress as far as your body is concerned. If your body is flooded with stress hormones – you need a break – and a Deload training program can help.

In a stressful situation, you have a variety of options:

Option 1: You can take time-off. You would cease exercise until the stress abates (My LEAST favorite option). Just like the answer above to physical damage and pain, reduced exercise can help your Endocrine System Heal.

Better Options are:

Option 2: Reduced Intensity. Your exercise training program has you planned to do 8RM Sets, instead, you Deload and do 15-20 Rep Sets, slow and controlled, maintaining strict form, and maybe not even go to failure.

Option 3: Reduce Time (Volume). You were planning to do 3 Sets of each exercise. Instead, you only perform one set of each exercise.

Option 4: Reduce Type. You were planning to do Barbell Squats. Instead, you switch to Sit-Ups with Dumbbells or Pistol Squats. You were planning to perform Barbell Bench Presses. Instead, you switch to Push-Ups.

Classic Deload has a planned reduction every fourth week. In many ways, this is a variation of Dr. Selye’s Adaption Theory, which was used as a Foundation for the development of Dr. Tudor Bompa’s Periodization Program.

Please review the details of the Adaption Theory and Periodization in your IFPA Personal Training Manual.

You may want to incorporate both Periodization and Program Design in all your personal training sessions, but be flexible. All personal trainers should keep careful training documentation. IFPA Certified Personal Trainers should plan their personal training sessions following all the guidelines you have learned. If you do, you will see your personal training clients improve their performance workout to workout. Your personal training clients should increase their Load (Weight – Intensity) or Reps (Time or Volume) every time they workout with you.

If you see your personal training clients begin to plateau or worse, decrease in their performance, use a Deload program to give them a longer time to Recover and Adapt.

You will often hear the phrase: “Work Smarter…Not Harder!” and yet, far too many personal trainers focus far too long and hard on the toughest possible training programs! Periodization and the proper use of Deload Programs is part of working Smart!

Good Luck,

Dr. Jim Bell


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